The XO Laptop: It’s the Software, Stupid

2/1/08Follow @wroush

On YouTube, there is an 11-minute video of the veterinarian-assisted birth of a calf on a farm in Villa Cardal, Uruguay, a small town in a dairy-rich region four hours north of the capital, Montevideo. It’s an amazing thing to watch—at least, to a city slicker like me who doesn’t get to witness the miracle of birth every day. But what makes this particular video remarkable is that it was shot by a fourth-year student at Villa Cardal’s Public School 24, using the built-in camera and recording software on the student’s XO Laptop, within weeks of the machine’s arrival at the school last year.

Uruguay was the first country to purchase a large number of XO laptops, ordering 100,000 of the small green machines from Cambridge, MA-based One Laptop Per Child Foundation last October. If you dropped a couple thousand bucks on your last laptop, you may be alarmed by the idea of a student taking her brand-new XO into a muddy cow pen and getting up close and personal with a caul-enmeshed calf still shining with amniotic fluid. But to the folks at OLPC, who designed the $175 XO to be rugged and portable, yet powerful, finding the YouTube video was a triumphant moment. This bit of barnyard reality spoke volumes about an often-overlooked aspect of the project—namely, the software, which is designed to overturn old notions of classroom learning and give kids the ability to collaborate and express themselves in many media.

YouTube video of calf’s birth in Villa Cardal, Uruguay
“I was in Brazil, at home, and it’s around 1 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday, and being an idiot, I’m on e-mail,” says David Cavallo, OLPC’s chief learning architect and the former Latin American coordinator for the project. “And I get a note from a regional coordinator—who reports directly to the president of Uruguay—who sends me this video from Villa Cardale, where there are 150 kids and every kid got a laptop. Nobody taught them how to do this, but they’re already making their own stuff and posting it to YouTube! You can see this fluency developing, a sense of what it means to express something in video. It’s really quite articulate.”

OLPC and the XO Laptop have received mountains of media attention over the past year, most of it focusing on the laptop itself, the foundation’s difficulties getting the device into mass production and lining up solid orders, and OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte’s public clash with Intel (a saga we hope we have helped put to rest with our January 25 analysis and our January 28 interview with Negroponte). In one recent post, CNET blogger Tom Krazit complains about delays in the delivery of XOs to donors who participated in OLPC’s recent “Give One, Get One” program (See “Give one laptop, get one sooner or later“); while Krazit’s blog is usually valuable for its level-headed coverage of Apple, his XO post typifies the punditocracy’s skeptical, often mystifyingly angry and dismissive stance toward OLPC and the XO.

What almost all of the coverage of OLPC has omitted—and what came out over and over in my recent interviews with Cavallo and OLPC software president Walter Bender—is that the XO does not really matter as a piece of hardware. It matters a great deal as a vehicle for a very specific vision about learning, education, and the possibilities for engagement through digital technology. And that vision is much more evident in the software that comes pre-loaded on the XO than in the physical design of its hardware.

The hardware, it must be said, seems almost expressly designed to baffle and frustrate adults; in the name of durability and portability, the designers have thrown out most of the comfortable conventions of laptop design, evoking predictable reactions from the computer industry’s usual media gatekeepers. With icy British sarcasm, one Economist reviewer (in a January 4 article entitled “One clunky laptop per child“) derided the machine as having buttons too small for adult hands, a frustratingly slow processor, a cumbersome and buggy operating system, a “screwy” track pad, and a keypad that (horrifyingly) “lack[s] the normal press response that allows smooth typing.”

Bender, who runs the software side of the OLPC Foundation and designed the XO’s top-level interface, called Sugar, admits that the laptop wasn’t designed for “fat-fingered adults.” (It was designed for elementary school students in the 6-to-12 age bracket; see Bender’s point-by-point response to the Economist review here.) “They’re right—it is a clunky laptop, depending on what your metric is,” Bender told me when I visited OLPC’s Kendall Square offices two weeks ago. “But my response is that they’re using the wrong metric. It doesn’t matter whether it’s got a faster or slower boot time than this or that machine. Are the kids learning? That’s the only metric that matters.”

And by that metric, it’s probably too early to render a verdict, since the XO went into mass production less than three months ago and only about a quarter-million of the devices have shipped so far. But as the Uruguyuan birthing video demonstrates, students are already putting the XO’s media-creation tools to creative use, bearing out at least one of the OLPC’s five core principles—that of connection, the idea that children should be able to use the XO to express themselves in communication with one another and with the larger world via the Internet. (The other four principles are that every child should have his or her own laptop, that students should be able to own the laptops and take them home after class, that the program should focus on elementary-school students, and that all of the software and systems on the machine should be free and open-source.)

Bender doesn’t expect the XO to give rise to legions of young YouTube-posting videographers; for one thing, broadband connectivity is in scarce supply in the rural, developing regions where OLPC has focused its distribution efforts. But students can still use the laptop to connect with one another, via the machines’ built-in Wi-Fi mesh networking system. In fact, when you turn on the XO, the first thing you see isn’t a list of applications—it’s a menu leading to a map of the other people using XO’s in the neighborhood, wirelessly speaking.

Visualizing the Mesh Network on the XO Laptop“We knew that Internet bandwidth was going to be available but expensive, so that having all these kids go off to MySpace [to do their networking] wasn’t necessarily viable,” says Bender. “We needed to capture that collaboration and bring it closer. So we thought, why not just make collaboration a seminal part of the operating system? Instead of having collaboration be something that happens out there—something where you graft network awareness onto other activities—we said, let’s have it be something that’s always part of what you do. So we put the notion of the presence of other people in the local area network directly into the interface.”

Collaboration is also a central theme in many of the applications Bender’s team chose to include in Sugar. The best-developed example so far, Bender says, is the XO’s music software suite. Working with Jean Piché, a composer and music producer who teaches electroacoustic composition at the University of Montreal, Bender’s team first assembled a simple application called TamTam that allows students to create music by choosing from hundreds of synthesized sounds, then pounding the keys. “From there you go to TamTam Jam,” says Bender. “It’s network-savvy, and it will synchronize with other laptops, so you can turn on rhythms, access multiple instruments at once, and build rich musical structures.” Then there’s TamTam Edit, a sequencing and composition tool that lets students transplant tracks from one composition into another over the network, and TamTam synthLab, which lets them invent new sounds—for example, by applying random number generators to a library of recorded waveforms.

“But wait, there’s more,” Bender says. From synthLab, students can drill down into Csound, a musical scripting language invented by Barry Vercoe at the MIT Media Lab that’s so powerful that film-score composers use it to create special musical effects. “So you go from a tool that a two-year-old can immediately start using to the same tools they use in Hollywood,” says Bender. “Not every kid is going to be a Csound hacker, but there is this opportunity for growth, exploration, invention, expression, sharing, and critique that is part of everything we do.”

Hang out at the foundation very long, in fact, and you’ll realize that Bender, Cavallo, Negroponte, and their colleagues are utterly sincere when they say OLPC is a learning project, not a laptop project. The XO is simply an embodiment—the best one current technology will allow, given the compromises necessary to make the device cheap, durable, and power-miserly—of constructivist learning principles that philosopher-psychologist Jean Piaget and computer-science pioneers like Seymour Papert and Alan Kay have espoused for decades, and that have long had a home at the MIT Media Lab, which, of course, Negroponte himself founded in 1985.

“There is a long history of technology and learning,” says Bender. “We and others have been working on this problem for almost 50 years. So we have a Logo environment on the XO, called TurtleArt. [Logo is the graphical programming language co-invented by Papert.] We have eToys, a fabulously rich program that is the embodiment of Alan Kay’s life work.” In fact, almost every piece of software on the XO is designed to advance the constructivist belief that learning occurs most efficiently when it’s active, social, and exploratory, with constant feedback between instructors and learners and between learners themselves.

Sugar does include some unique quirks—“things we’ve done that we’ve done because we thought they were necessary, and because we had the opportunity to correct things that were just wrong in other systems,” in Bender’s words. For instance, Bender has a grudge against double-clicking and overlapping windows, two user-interface conventions that he says are “fundamentally bad ideas” and are notably absent from the XO. But “we are not reinventing the wheel if we can help it,” he says. The operating system on the XO is Fedora, a free version of Red Hat Linux; its Web browser is a version of Mozilla’s Firefox; the word processor is based on Abiword, a popular open-source program; its streaming media player is a free version of RealNetworks’ Helix system.

Bender says his goal for 2008—aside from simply getting more laptops into the hands of students, of course—is to make the Sugar platform more stable and get the remaining bugs out. “We also want to do a better job of supporting the community, so that more flowers can bloom,” he says. That’s the main reason that virtually everything on the laptop, right down to the hardware drivers, is open-source—so that it can be shared and so that, ultimately, responsibility for maintaining the platform can be transferred from the foundation itself to the community of educators, students, and developers using the XO. “In open-source you strive to push everything upstream, because as soon as it’s upstream, it’s not your problem anymore, it’s the community’s problem,” says Bender. “That’s a great place to be. And we are trying to push as much upstream as possible, because we won’t be successful otherwise.”

Especially not once shipments scale up to the millions, and students are using the laptop in dozens of countries, including the United States. Ultimately, the XO Laptop will succeed only in proportion to the creativity that students, teachers, software developers, and education ministries pour into it—and that’s largely out of OLPC’s hands. But the flowers are already starting to bloom, on YouTube and elsewhere. (The blog for Uruguay’s Ceibal Project, whose official goal is to give one laptop to every child in the country, is full of examples like the cow video).

“Now, are we finished?” asks Bender. “No, we’ve got a long way to go. But it’s beginning to happen. The laptops are getting into the hands of kids and into the hands of software developers, and they are starting to use them and discover things they like and things they don’t like, and they are fixing the bugs, and they are supporting each other. It has exceeded my expectations, the level to which the community has engaged in the process”–and assisted in the XO’s own birth.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Alex Edwards

    How nice to hear something positive about the OLPC computer.
    I refere to the article about the video of the calf in Uraguay..
    I entered the buy1/get1. I had no problems with delivery but sympathise with those who have not received theirs yet. I bought it as a toy for my kiddy.
    But I use it to send e-m’s from my car. I plug it into the cigarette lighter socket and charges as I use it.
    The device was far more sophisticated than I expected. It has led me to experiment with add on devices at the USB ports . Hopefully ‘breaking out’ the soldering iron and making a few transducers to measure what ever.
    It was the best toy I ever bought for some one else and ended up using it myself.

    I often wonder what happened to the second one (OLPC) abd where it went in the World.

    Alex

  • Terry Roberts

    The OLPC project gives me an adrenaline rush everytime I think about it! Having been upcose and personal with the educational use of technology as a teacher, then as a school tech coordinator, it just blows me away when I think that this dream is becoming a reality. I say those who have any gripes do not grasp the real reason for this project, and cannot break free of self-centered, greed-motivated thinking!

  • Mike Stefureak

    I’ve been defending the XO vigorously since I received mine. Even though I’m a fat fingered adult (if someone wants to start a user group called the Fat Fingers please do so!) I find that I can still type at a decent speed. The hardware is a constant journey of joyful discovery for me. It took me all of one day to become comfortable with it.

    I can’t understand the negative press that the blogosphere keeps dumping on the XO and OLPC. The machine is hands down the best laptop I’ve bought! I, too, would love to know where the one I gave went but I’m happy enough knowing that a child somewhere is sharing in the joy that the machine is giving me.

    Kudos, OLPC, on a brilliant machine and project!

  • Tom McLernon

    I think that these XO laptops are an excellent tool. People the world over are generally not stupid, but a lot of them are deprived of opportunity. A lot of this deprivation is about basic necessities, but some is about new information and ideas.

    New ideas are built on top of old ideas, but there needs to be a foundation to begin with. This is going to go a long way in helping them alleviate their own poverty, and create their own prosperity.

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  • slumos

    I certainly have nothing against the Sugar interface. It’s hardly earth-shattering. It’s acceptable.

    On the other hand, I would love for Bender and Negroponte to come see my son’s eyes fall when the trackpad goes crazy–again! If anything, it’s turning him off to computing.

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  • http://mindymcadams.com/tojou/ Mindy McAdams

    This is wonderful. Thank you for posting the story and the links. I especially like what David Cavallo said: “Nobody taught them how to do this … You can see this fluency developing, a sense of what it means to express something in video. It’s really quite articulate.”

    That is the whole reason to distribute the XO instead of some bloat-ware from Microsoft.

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  • http://www.apisphere.com Craig

    We received our XO at Christmas and are only now being able to discover what the laptop is capable of.

    As for the fat fingers, yep I have them, and I find working on my daughter’s computer slow and cumbersome, which is why I have a MacBook Pro. The XO is not designed for Children and adults should not expect that it will have the same proportions as adult machines.

    The track pad – no excuses here. It is does not function properly all the time and is very touchy. I am hopeful that this will be an area of major improvement.

    Networking – What an area of tremendous frustration in my home. The fact that the XO shipped without support for most of the major wireless security protocols and required a new build/upgrade was very frustrating. In fact even after upgrading to build 565 it is baffling to me that the wireless access password has to be entered each and every time. This makes handling pass phrases cumbersome.

    On the plus side, my daughter has a laptop for 200 dollars that provides, video, chat, audio recordings, wireless access, a simplistic (yet functional) interface, word processing all in a rugged enough package that I feel comfortable letting her take it to school and on field trips. The XO creates a world of possibilities for children all over the world and for that we as a community should look for ways to support the product and goals…

  • Greg

    There’s only one thing that bothers me about this article. I have a buy one give one XO laptop and the video function is limited to short clips of up to 90 seconds. If this is the default limits, how is a kid who just got an XO in third world countries filming an 11 minute video using the XO? Did the teachers and installers somehow reconfigure it to allow for longer video clips, or is something else going on here? I’m hoping there’s a simple way to change the length of videos you can record and that’s what happened.

    One of the other things that’s a little disappointing about it, but in reality most things are great about it, is the video quality of the compression and playback is a little overly blocky. It’d be nice if they could set up a more higher quality (and memory intensive) compression using resolution playback closer to the VGA quality of the stills. I did expect better video playback quality. But it’s probably not a big deal and more important for those adults using it as a toy who were sponsors in the US.

  • http://reitzis.com stefan reitz

    Nothing equally inspiring and world changing (well, in a positive sense) has come out of the US in recent (- Bush -) years.
    I actually shed tears of joy over the aproach and possibilities of this project. And I haven’t done this over the positive aspects of pc hardware ever, even though there are more “powerfull” – by powers of maybe 10 – sets alone in my basement. I enjoy their services, but I love the XO.
    I ordered my first XO late November and got it in time for Christmas. I ordered a second one just in time on December 30th, and haven’t seen anything but misleading e-mails about it yet. I understand olpc is more into engineering communication networks for small groups than dealing with a large customer base. Luckily this customer base is made up of mostly enthusiast …
    I am still running 650 and can live with the wireless setup quirks. They will be overcome by this community.
    What makes me a bit uncomfortable is (and this may be due to my spoiled Fat Finger perspective) the leaving of the “everything is a file” predicament in sugar. I’d love to have a way putting and getting files from where I want without going to the terminal (- I like GUIs – by the way, enabling samba would be nice, too).
    I am very much looking forward to getting the second XO, just to get a first impression how the mesh networking works. And to go show them off with my daughter at our local hotspots :)

    I also wish the active antennas for the XS (= “School”) Server wouldn’t be quite as proprietary and scarce. I’d love to set a server up in my basement using standard (cisco / artem / belkin / …) pcmcia or usb wirelss devices, just to fool around with it and maybe once I got it running (maybe with dansguardian content filtering implemented) donate it to our local school system.

    Again: I LOVE the project.

  • Carl Linden

    He used a $100 COMPUTER to take video!! Same as with a cheap phone, or camcorder…. Now if they had learned the procedure, or any other relevant information, FROM access provided by their computer (again cell phone accessible) — THAT might have been interesting!
    I think a searchable DVD, AND a cheap (could be <~$35) DVD player (obviously with screen) could do 3-10 times MORE, for the same money, as the OLPC ever will! DVD’s containing OLPC OS AND content(s) would be almost trivially cheap! Most DVD players ALREADY have a nice CPU, small case, display, etc! Just add a dual PS2/USB keyboard/mouse port/hub (802/NNNbT is just a USB device away!), a little software, and voila! As the OLPC tenets say, “The XO is simply an embodiment—the best one current technology will allow”.

  • Trimtab

    To Carl Linden:

    – The OLPC shoots video at 4 times the resolution of most cell phones.

    A DVD player is not substitute for an XO lpatop.

    – a DVD player does not run for 8 hours on a battery.
    – it needs a separate display device that requires even more power.
    – DVDs cannot be viewed in full sunlight
    – breaks/fails easily in dusty or wet environments.
    – fails when dropped.
    – is NOT expandable.
    – Software and information (content) cannot be shared between players.

    The OLPC XO is a complete, personal, editable, device that allows users to create, share and distribute all content they create or obtain from others. Groups of users can also collaborate with each other via their XO laptops.

    A DVD player is fixed read-only device that does not allow collaboration. It is nothing, but a device for consumers of media content.

    BTW, you can add a DVD player to an OLPC via a USB cable if that is what you really want.

  • Gene Cavanaugh

    I think the point that many people miss is that this is NOT a laptop that will or should please YOU! It is a learning tool for underpriviliged children, and a very good one, from what I see.
    I understand the flak the project gets from industry; there is a conception in corporate America among the top managers that “what is good for our stockholders is good for the world”, and it is arguably not good for the stockholders if even one laptop is given away that would otherwise be purchased from their corporation. That does NOT speak ill of the program, IMHO. Judge for yourself about corporate America!

  • Rashed Khalid

    I think the OLPC is an excellent project,and I wish it all the success.
    It is a great way for children to learn and enjoy the benefits of computer techonology.Living in a developing country myself ie Pakistan, I know that making school learning interesting for kids is a challenge, and I hope that the XO laptop will be beneficial in this regard.

  • http://x14n.org christian gunning

    (btw, i’m not sure the trolls are worth answering – the angry reply is what they want… good points nonetheless)

    OLPC got hardware out the door (relatively) admirably, i.e. no **major** delays, recalls, etc. Looking at the game console / commercial operating system release delays of recent years, this was no small feat, and for a non-profit to boot.

    The initial sugar releases were almost unbearably unpolished (think windows 3.1, dos, and early mozilla). The initial design group was relatively small, which led to lots of bugs and a few, in my humble opinion, flawed design decisions (journal vs. filesystem should be more cooperative, rather than mutually exclusive). These issues were irksome but, hey! It’s software, so it can be updated, and it’s open-source, so i can participate. The G1G1 was pure genious in terms of getting a few thousand fat fingered, techno-lusty linux-heads like me to pitch in with bug squashing, documenting, etc. etc. etc.

    Now if I could just get that swap partition working!!

  • john blangiardo

    I love the XO!!! I contributed 3 through G1G1. I’ll share my gifts with my two grandkids and keep one for the kid in me. I added a USB Ethernet adapter to improve the internet connection for big downloads. I’m learning the Linux OS. I now am witness to the excitement of the free/open source software community. I’m replacing VISTA with Ubuntu (slowly). The educational value of the installed and soon to be developed XO activities and software are incredible. The OLPC project will prove to be one of those technology revolutions as was arpanet, Netscape, GUI, As Easy As, and so.

    My sincere thanks and appreciation to everyone at OLPC who made this possible.

  • Generalludd

    I have had two XOs since January and have not done nearly as much as i would have liked. As far as fat fingers are concerned, just plug an Apple USB Keyboard and mouse into it and you’ll have no problem.

    I think there is a way to extend the video record time via some terminal commands. I am not knowledgeable enough and can’t find a comprehensive guide to Terminal and SU (bash 32) commands to do it without copying what someone else has done.

    This is not a Mac Laptop pro or a 2ghz processor. It does what it is supposed to do. Read the comments about the laptops in Peru.

    Regards

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  • Howard Plumley

    Wonderful article – too bad it was surrounded by notices of Microsoft’s ‘win’. The OLPC can now come with a version of XP, BUT only in foreign countries. And by the way that ‘mesh’ thing had to go. The new innovative and intuitive interface won’t work on XP. Eight hours battery time, not when you are using ‘office’. So it really WAS the software. Sorry!

  • Miiu

    I have been impressed with this device since it arrived. Opened box – sighed, “Oh how cute”. My has that changed. Added another one to the mix and got a friend to do the same.

    I had a daughter who clicked her way thru info, and now she is DEFINING it. She is very excited to know a whole set of other children her age, that didn’t have a voice, can now be heard.

    After playing around and watching my daughter play around some more we came to the following conclusion:

    Her mouse pad would get jiggly only if she left her hands on it when booting up or starting a new activity. Hands off during the process and no more skitty mouse.